June 1, 2006

Hot-Dogging It

A scrum of cameramen, 30-inch wieners, and sexual innuendo at Brooklyn's second-most-famous hot-dog-eating contest.

Keith Huang

The scene outside the restaurant feels more like a stoop sale than an eating competition. About a dozen people have formed a semicircle in front of a beat-up picnic table, behind which two men use duct tape to affix a flimsy vinyl banner to a brick wall.

hot-dog eating
All photos and video: Keith Huang
Just moments before the start of competition, Schnäck co-owner Harry Hawk shows the crowd a 30-inch hot dog.
It's early in the afternoon on Memorial Day, and on the outskirts of Red Hook, local hole-in-the-wall burger joint Schnäck is hosting its homegrown hot dog-eating contest—an intimate, local version of the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, the gargantuan eating melee that takes place every Fourth of July in Coney Island and is broadcast live on ESPN. The only thing gargantuan here are the dogs, a comical 30 inches in length.

The Nathan's Famous contest has become an international event drawing thousands of spectators and showcasing the professional elite of competitive eaters; the Schnäck Stahl-Meyer Hot Dog Eating Contest, just a few miles down the road, feels more like a backyard-wrestling match—scrappy and ugly, but still fun to watch.

"We've got about 50 or 60 people hanging out here on the street," says Schnäck co-owner Harry Hawk. "And we're giving away free hot dogs—we love that." A line of people curls to the side, as a Schnäck employee wearing rubber gloves uses tongs to hand out the wieners. On this Memorial Day, the weather is warm enough to make it feel a bit like July 4th.

Hawk says he hasn't spent much to publicize the contest. "It's mostly word of mouth," he says. Hawk's food costs are a fraction of what Nathan's Famous must spend because the Schnäck contest awards the eater who can gobble a single 30-inch hot dog the fastest.

Earlier, Hawk showed the goods to the crowd, holding aloft one of the wieners by its end. It almost looks as if Hawk is showing the crowd a deadly snake that he has beaten to death. But a wiseacre in wraparound shades asks, "Are the competitors expected to take all 30 inches at once?"

When Hawk reads the rules, a sense of gravitas falls over the previously carefree contestants. To win the Schnäck competition, contestants must eat the elongated hot dogs in the shortest amount of time—and then keep the dog down for at least two minutes upon completion. Eaters must adhere to "picnic-style rules," which means the hot dog must be eaten as it is presented, with "no dipping, dunking, mushing or desecrating," according to the Association of Independent Competitive Eaters, which has sanctioned the Schnäck event. Eaters can rip apart the hot dog, but they cannot separate the meat from the bun. Also, "Contestants 21 years or older can wash down their dog with a cold mug of Jever Pilsener beer during or after the contest."

"We didn't learn about picnic-style rules until after we met up with [AICE co-founder] Arnie [Chapman] and AICE," Hawk says. "But from the get-go, we wanted to have a hot dog-eating contest where normal people could compete using a normal technique."

hot-dog eating
Sizing up the task at hand, each contestant makes last-minute adjustments before the eating contest officially begins.
In other words, none of the tactics associated with famous professional eaters such as Takeru "The Tsunami" Kobayashi, the Japanese-eating phenomenon who has won the Nathan's contest every year since 2001. Kobayashi uses the "Solomon method," in which he splits the wiener in half, swallows both pieces simultaneously, then eats the bun separately after dipping it in water.

With competitive eating the subject of two recent books and an episode of MTV's True Life, it's not surprising to see the press out in full force. A photographer scurries about, jotting down names of anyone who looks like they work at Schnäck or might be a contestant. Another reporter asks contestants questions like, "How much do you weigh?" and ,"Are you concerned about the effects competitive eating might have on your health?" There's even a scrum of TV cameramen who are jockeying for space on the sidewalk, their bulky cameras perched atop massive tripods.

And then, at 1 p.m., the hot dogs are brought out on a huge tray. Each of the six eaters receives a hot dog and seizes it in his hands (there are no women in this contest). Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz announces the start of the contest. He cracks a line about how this contest is "calorie-free," but the joke flutters to earth like a dying quail. Markowitz counts backwards from five, and suddenly, it's on.

About 30 seconds later, a clear winner emerges. "Gentleman" Joe Menchetti (Cluck Bucket), who kneels at the table's edge (at left in the above video), has consumed at least 10 inches of hot dog. But after taking his next bite, he sips some water and a chunk of hot dog falls out of his mouth and into the glass. Instinctively, he retrieves the chunk with his fingers, prompting a trio of rabble-rousing men to cry foul. Menchetti's wife, who is taking all of this very seriously, responds with fervor: "That was an accident! That was an accident! Keep your eyes open!"

Hawk, standing to the right of Menchetti, has witnessed the slip and quickly rules it an accident. The competition goes forward, and within moments, Menchetti has whittled his hot dog to about 12 inches. With a time of 1:53, Menchetti claims first place and the $500 purse. The next two finishers will continue eating for several minutes more to finish their hot dogs.

"I'm a little disappointed I didn't break my record," Menchetti tells Gelf. "I did 90 seconds last year." But Hawk chimes in: "This year [the hot dogs] were slightly thicker than last year, so I think you're right on." He adds later, "This is our second year, we've had a good turnout, so we'll probably keep on going."

As for Menchetti, who competes year-round, he says he earned "five digits" in prize money in 2004, but "didn't quite make five digits" in 2005. He will next compete June 17 at The World Fried Peanut Butter & Banana Sandwich Eating Championship in New Jersey.

Related in Gelf

Competitive eater Crazy Legs Conti shows up at a screening of the documentary about his feats of consumption.

Related on the Web

Gothamist was also covering the action at Schnäck.

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Article by Keith Huang

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